by Keith C. Smith
During my long career, I heard many colleagues reflect on their first Foreign Service assignment—usually recalling it as a highly positive experience. Unfortunately, my first post left me disillusioned by the Foreign Service and vowing to leave it as soon as feasible. Many of us who have served in Mexican border posts encountered work and management issues quite different from those who witnessed the full range of foreign service life in a large or medium-sized capital. For slightly more than one year (April 1963-May 1964) I decided the futures of large numbers of poor Mexicans anxious to move to the U.S., observed the human tragedy encountered by a duty officer on the border and participated in a sub-rosa rebellion by junior staff against the imperial management style of the Consul-General (CG). Fortunately, the following 36 years in the Foreign Service were very different. The people I worked with and the intellectual challenges offered were sufficient to keep me from walking away from what turned out to be a satisfying career.
I joined the Foreign Service in the fall of 1962, and had little idea of what I was signing on to. Like all new FSOs at that time, I had to endure an A-100 Course that was as boring as it was useless. I could relate to nothing covered in the day-to-day lectures. Nevertheless, as the orientation course neared its end, all of the new FSOs waited anxiously for the list of overseas assignments. I had not put down an assignment preference, which was not a smart thing to do. In any case, I was first assigned to Managua, Nicaragua as vice-consul. According to the post report and State’s medical staff Managua did not have adequate health care facilities to cover the special needs of my family. I assumed that the Department might instead assign us to Europe or someplace more exotic than Managua. As I was explaining my problem to the personnel people, the FSO assigned to Tijuana, Mexico was complaining to Personnel about his assignment.
Personnel, in its wisdom then informed me that after Spanish language training I should go to Tijuana, where we would be close to US medical facilities. At that point I had no recourse, even though I felt embarrassed at the thought of being assigned to a post a three-hour drive from my hometown of Pasadena, California, particularly after the hoopla of becoming a diplomat. Most of us growing up there assumed that Tijuana was primarily a vice-ridden hole where tourists went to gamble or misbehave.
After completing the State Department’s much too-short three-month Spanish course I bundled the family into our old Buick in late spring of 1963 and headed across country from D.C. to Tijuana. About ten days later, I started work at the consulate, still in the dark as to what the Foreign Service was all about or what to expect in my new assignment “abroad.”
The next year was interesting, and the most bizarre I was to experience during my 38-year Foreign Service career. The Consul-General (CG) was a man with delusions of grandeur, who was sure that he deserved to have been an ambassador in some important capital instead of being in Tijuana. An early sign of his self-importance was his making me cool my heels for eight days before I was even introduced to him.
The next year consisted of “irregular warfare” between the CG and one or two senior officers, and the consulate’s junior staff. I did experience a slice of life that I would never experience again. While I learned to appreciate the importance of consular work, the atmosphere between senior and junior staff was unusually tense and contentious.
As one of several vice-consuls, my job was to interview Mexican families who had applied for immigrant visas. The consulate had a waiting list of over 50,000 families who had applied to live permanently in the US. Each morning there would be a long line of immigrant and visitor visa applicants outside the building. A majority of the applicants presented fraudulent affidavits of support by an America sponsor and/or false guarantees of U.S. employment.
I was tasked with trying to discover who really had a close family tie in the U.S., who had a legitimate means of support in America and who were not criminals or a “subversives.” It was almost an impossible job. Often, I woke up at night wondering whether I had made the right decision. I had so much power in my inexperienced hands over the destinies of those poor people who wanted desperately to improve the lives of their families. It was tough trying to make Solomon-like decisions 30-40 times a day. I gained great respect for consular officers at “visa mills.”
With the multitude of complex consular problems, we were lucky to have a wise senior Immigration and Naturalization (INS) officer at the consulate to whom we could always turn for advice. He was a great guy and had more contacts in Baja California than anyone I met. Many times I had to make decisions regarding whether to let in to the U.S. former prostitutes who had married Americans (often guys from the hill country of Tennessee and Kentucky). The INS officer always gave me solid advice regarding how to adjudicate applications. In addition, his extensive police intelligence sources in Baja California were useful in our decision-making.
I recall one Mexican family who proudly showed me the bank account of their sponsor in the US. It said the client had a level of savings consistently in the “high one figure.” Others paid their life savings to “visa fixers” who had offices on the border. For a fee they filled out the consular application forms, but too often provided false affidavits of support. It was impossible not to reflect on how our ancestors would likely have been turned away if required to meet today’s requirements.
There was substantial corruption in the Mexican Government. We calculated that local officials were taking in over $3 million a month in “fees” from drug dealings, customs enforcement and kick-backs from job holders. Naturally, it was the poor who suffered from the corruption. The beneficiaries were often the real estate people in California who sold luxury homes to corrupt Mexicans. Once, I was offered a large sum of money just to move a card forward in a file, giving the applicant for a visa an earlier appointment. I could have paid for a new car with the money and no one would probably have known.
I had an opportunity to work with the FBI on a case attempting to identify a Chinese spy who was a resident of Tijuana and who was trying to work his way into a sensitive research area in the US. I had visited the University of Baja California on several occasions to meet with local professors. This led me to identify this particular man. This type of non-consular activity made my tour somewhat more interesting.
The Tragic Side of Life
I had never before seen up close so much human tragedy. We all had to take our turn as weekend duty officer. On my first duty weekend, I had to deal with the deaths of four Americans and to try an assist about 40-50 people locked up at the Tijuana Jail. One of those four deaths was a young man who was in a coma from a drug overdose. The hospital could find no identification that I could use to notify his next of kin, although the hospital claimed that he was an American. The next morning when I returned to the primitive Tijuana Hospital, the boy was dead and a wallet (empty of money) suddenly appeared. I called the family on the phone. After they got over the shock, they were angry about the hospital not having the identification the first night and wanted an investigation. Not surprisingly, a Mexican police investigation uncovered no evidence of fault on the part of the hospital staff. With proof of identity and citizenship we might have gotten him immediate life-saving medical attention in the US.
After a car accident, I had to first watch the father of one American family die, then the mother of another American family, as well as two of their children. In all, four parents and four children died at the hands of a drunken Mexican kid, who received only minor injuries. I felt terrible watching a doctor try and save a little girl who was the same age as my daughter. A modern hospital might have been able to save all of them. It was a sobering experience.
Foreign Service Idiocies
My tour in Tijuana was cut short by two events which to this day my Foreign Service colleagues find hard to believe. Both cases involved run-ins with the Consul General and both fueled a resolve to leave the Foreign Service. The CG and his wife wanted to have an Easter party for Mexican officials. Unfortunately, they had the crazy idea that the most junior diplomat should dress up like an Easter bunny and give out eggs to the children of Mexican officials. This in the land of Macho! Well, guess who was the most junior guy? Yes, and he passed the order to me through my wife. I told her I wasn’t going to do it and thought that was the end of it. At the same time, the Mexican staff at the consulate got word about the plan and began to tease me, increasing my resolve.
Two nights before the event, the CG called to say that his wife was ready to help make a costume for me. I told him that I would not do it. I remember thinking that if this was the great Foreign Service, it wasn’t worth sticking with. In any case, the CG got mad as hell and slammed down the receiver. He then called the next most junior FSO who also refused, and who later blamed me for him being forced out of the Foreign Service after his tour in Tijuana. In any case, that guy quickly got on the phone and called the vice-consul next up the ladder and warned him against answering the phone. Wisely he didn’t answer. The CG then called a Mexican-American FSO, who surprised us by agreeing to do it. In any case, I was in the CG’s doghouse, but had at that point resolved to leave State and go back to school. I had no idea at the time that the CG would turn out to be the most incompetent Foreign Service officer I would encounter in my long career.
Another incident occurred shortly there-after, ending the CG’s patience with what he considered my insubordination. This was my response to a memo from Washington requesting all principal officers (in this case him) to elicit from each staff member written suggestions on how to improve post management. At the consulate, there was only one naive soul who sat down and wrote up suggestions. They were pretty innocuous and they went only to the CG. I didn’t hear anything for several weeks. I was then summoned to the CG’s office (an extremely rare event), where I was criticized for my alleged disloyalty. He had a stack of papers with his rebuttals to my suggestions. He had intended to send out his written rebuttals to all of the staff, even though they had never seen my submission.
This convinced me that he really was a paranoid, megalomaniac fool, who shouldn’t be in the Foreign Service or managing people. I told him that my suggestions were well meant, and that if he insisted on passing out rebuttals, I would be forced to tell the State Department about his response to their call for more openness. Suddenly, he became worried that his reputation in Washington might be damaged, reducing his chances of securing an ambassadorship (he was never given another assignment). He then sent me out of his office. Not long afterwards, he received a call from Washington informing him that due to the needs of the Service, he had to select one of his junior FSOs for a direct assignment to Quito, Ecuador. He quickly decided that I was the best candidate for Quito. Two weeks later, I was on my way to what turned out to be a rewarding post, where I had an opportunity to work with a first-class group of diplomats. I swear I had nothing to do with the transfer. In any case, I’m not sure that there is a moral to this story, but sometimes things do work out for the best.